"So I was standing over there," said a smooth, Betan-accented voice, altogether too close to his ear. Aral didn't give the stranger the satisfaction of seeing him jump or reach for a weapon; he merely turned his head with the great dignity of a man mildly buzzed three quarters of the way through his first drink.
It was the dark-haired man Aral had noticed--more than noticed--on the opposite side of the dingy spaceport bar. The man smiled dazzlingly and went on, "And I was thinking to myself, he doesn't look shy, so why is he--oh."
The stranger's pale blue eyes went wide with shock--no, not just shock, recognition. Aral felt a corresponding surge of wariness. He was no one in particular here on Komarr. Certainly not to a Betan, so why did this one recognize him by his face, incognito and out of his customary context as he was? Aral's eye registered now the particular tone of the man's skin--not olive, as he'd thought when he watched the man in the long, grimy mirror above the bar, but a sun-kissed tan, equally out of place under these cold domes or Beta's hot ones. An Earther, here? But then he would have even less reason to recognize Aral than a Betan. Perhaps the skin color was engineered.
The man had clearly recovered his equanimity, and now leaned backward against the bar, shrugging his coat open to place his long, fit body on display. His clothes were as thoroughly civilian as Aral's own. It was the coat that had caught Aral's eye--an obviously military cut, though without obvious insignia.
"I've got it now," the man said, on a playful sigh. "You're one of those terrible manly warrior types, all repressed homoeroticism and no follow-through."
Despite his suspicions (because of them, because he only knew how to play with fire), Aral was finding the man even more damnably attractive up close than he had at a distance. He wondered if the effect were somehow manufactured--one heard stories about the dangerous, hypnotic beauty of the Cetagandan haut caste--but Aral could not quite imagine a Cetagandan leading up to assassination with this man's sunny smile. Aral finished his drink and set the empty glass tidily on the bar.
"And you, of course, are one those terrible galactics, all sex drive and no morals." Or taste, if the man's ploy were to be believed. There were dozens in this room younger, prettier, less scarred.
The beautiful man laughed delightedly, and Aral watched in the mirror as heads turned; conversations faltered and smiles bloomed five meters away, merely from the sound. What could he possibly want with Aral? Some deeper game, but the man was no Komarran, Aral would stake his life....
Aral pushed to his feet, dropped some currency on the bar, and turned to walk out. He was not in the least surprised when the man pursued him.
"You can call me Jack," the man offered.
Aral looked at him sideways as they exited the bar into the street--though not precisely outdoors, under the dome. "All right. Jack."
Jack grinned as if this were even greater wit than Aral's rather weak retort in the bar. "And now you could tell me your name. Or you could say anything, actually, I love your accent. So gruff."
"I could say that I am carefully monitored by Security--" no need to say which, or from what distance, "and whatever you are intending will go very badly for you."
Fine words, but the man could have put a knife into him, Aral had let him get so close in the bar. Aral supposed he would have (briefly) regretted slipping away from Negri's Eyes for this little bit of not-entirely-authorized personal leave, in that case. At least he would have known (though assassination was not the equivalent of a formal introduction) what Jack was after, then. He didn't move like a soldier, but there was something arresting about him, beneath the brash good nature. He was almost as attractive as Ges in his bluff, galactic way--more than attractive enough for Aral's purposes. Far too attractive.
Jack raised his perfect eyebrows. "Come on, you're way too high-class for anybody to be interfering if you want to get laid, I know how the system works. Sodomy laws are for plebes."
Aral merely raised an eyebrow back at that.
Jack rolled his eyes. "You walk like an officer, your boots are excellent, your accent's more pretty than unintelligible..."
"I get that from my mother," Aral said in an idle tone, eyeing the dark gap in the buildings they were just coming even with--an alley of sorts. "She was half Betan, you know."
Aral made his grab, aiming to drive Jack into the alley and up against the wall--the sudden move sent his head buzzing--and Jack, damn him, seemed to have expected it. He countered with a grab of his own, swinging their momentum around; for a giddy, wild instant, they were dancing down the alley. Aral didn't realize he was smiling until Jack stopped dead and dropped his grip on Aral's hand to clutch at his heart, miming besotted delight.
He'd meant to shove the man up against the wall and interrogate him, but Occam's Razor was starting to intrude rather forcefully into his calculations--was it not possible that a clownish galactic was simply a clownish galactic? The man had been surprised to recognize him, after all; Aral could not very well be his target. His reaction to Aral's grab had been too instinctive and smooth for Aral to think him so incompetent.
"What are you--" Jack said, just as Aral gave up and asked, "How do you--" and belatedly let go of Jack's wrist.
Jack closed his mouth and held out both hands, palm up, giving way. Aral gave a very slight bow and then straightened his shoulders and gathered his tattered dignity. Dancing. He hoped Security had lost track of him; the Emperor's sarcasm over it would be razor-sharp and well below the belt. "How do you know who I am?"
"Ahhh," Jack said, seeming to deflate slightly as that breath escaped. "Well, come on, it can't really shock you to learn that you're--known in certain circles, shall we say? Professionally. You're one to watch out for, Commodore Lord Vorkosigan."
Aral winced at that, and waved off rank, title, and name, none of which he did any honorable service here--though Jack had spoken neutrally, not making it a deliberate taunt. "Aral, please."
"Aral, okay, now we're getting somewhere," Jack brightened again. He strolled over to the alley wall and propped himself against it, in another inviting pose, just like he'd done at the bar. "I'm Captain Jack Harkness, just so we're on the same footing here, but please keep calling me Jack. It's a pleasure to meet you, Aral. It would be even more pleasure to get to know you a little better."
Captain, he said, a perfectly respectable rank--Aral had only made commodore a few years ago. It occurred to Aral that Jack was not only offering himself pre-shoved-against-wall, he was also carefully not blocking Aral's path out of the alley. If Jack were in intelligence, or security, in a capacity to have been briefed on Aral, then he must know more about Barrayarans than just--what had he said? No follow-through.
Aral was on him in two long strides, hands clutching the wool of his coat, muttering, "Offer me an escape route--" as he ground his body against Jack's. Jack out-maneuvered him again, pushing up against him and catching his mouth in a startlingly direct kiss. Aral went along with it, half from curiosity. He hadn't kissed as many men in his life as he'd fucked, and Jack's kiss was something new--entirely unlike Ges in any of his quicksilver moods, all equally dangerous these days--unlike the occasional back-alley grapple, drunk enough for an excuse, sober enough to run if something went wrong.
Aral tilted his head, deepening the kiss, and Jack surrendered the lead to him; Aral raised a hand to the back of Jack's neck, and between one heartbeat and the next it struck him what kissing Jack reminded him of. He pulled back, blinking, disoriented by the feel of short-clipped hair under his fingers--entirely inappropriate to a kiss like this one.
He and Galina had gone to a party once, in the first month of their brief marriage--Ges had been there, too, and they'd all been drinking, joking. Galina had had a little more to drink than she was used to (then, yet, in those first innocent weeks) and after some provocation or another from her brother she'd pulled Aral into a kiss, too long for strict propriety, but--unashamed, honorably married as they were. Defiantly, pointedly unashamed.
"Hey, come back," Jack murmured, tilting his head back against Aral's hand. "Where'd you--"
Aral shook his head a little and kissed Jack again, cutting off questions and words and thoughts, chasing Jack's confidence as if he could taste it, or catch it from him.
Aral still had one hand on Jack's coat; he let it slide in, down, seeking access to more skin than the nape of Jack's neck, pleasing though it was under his hand.
It was Jack who pulled away this time--Jack's hands had rested lightly on Aral's shoulders, all this time, and now he pushed Aral back a little. Aral took a quick step away, shoving his own hands into his pockets and looking sharply away, but Jack's hands stayed on him, and one went to his cheek.
"Hey, no, no," Jack said quickly, "I just--come on, you aren't in such a hurry that we have to do this standing up against a wall, right? Or at least not against this wall, out here where we might get interrupted?"
Aral met Jack's eyes again, and Jack smiled. His thumb traced the old scar on Aral's jaw, and Jack stepped into another kiss. The scar seemed to burn under Jack's touch, and even as their mouths opened to one another, Aral wondered if this were why--if it were because he was scarred, visibly scuffed and battered the way galactics, with their smooth and perfect faces, never were. If that were what Jack wanted--well. Aral had plenty of experience at that game; Ges could give any offworlder a run for his money, Aral would bet.
Kissing Jack was intoxicating, or else the last of his drink was just now reaching his bloodstream. Either way, Aral felt dizzy, and not at all inclined to argue, when Jack broke the kiss again and murmured, "Come on, my hotel's not far."
One last kiss for luck--one for courage--and Aral stepped back and jammed his hands into his pockets. Jack took the lead as far as the end of the alley, and they fell into step easily in the street. Aral glanced over and found Jack smiling at him, strangely delighted, as though Jack had accomplished something particularly pleasing in persuading Aral to come along to his hotel room. If it were all a trap of some kind--but then Jack would not give himself away so soon. There was still no evidence of danger, and the back-brain warning, There won't be, not until it's far too late, only quickened Aral's stride.
Jack looked away when Aral caught him looking, but the smile remained. Aral studied him openly, until Jack looked back at him with a questioning tilt to his head. Aral cleared his throat and redirected his gaze to the street, scanning their surroundings. He watched the handful of other people on the street, wearing clothes in meaningless bright colors and talking loudly, carelessly. They paid no attention to Aral or Jack or to anything else around them, lacking the caution any Barrayaran would have on a city street at night.
Aral looked over at Jack and found that Jack's eyes kept moving, studying the street with proper attention. He couldn't be Komarran, and peaceful Beta Colony and quiet old Earth seemed equally unlikely homes for this electrifying man.
"I was wondering," Aral said, not bothering to try to make it sound casual. "Why you approached me in the first place. You didn't recognize me until after you started talking."
Aral glanced over and saw Jack's smile twist into something rueful. "You know, this would be so much simpler if I thought you were fishing for compliments."
Jack's voice was not merely unoffended, but kind. Aral looked away again, keeping his shoulders straight and chin up with an effort.
Jack went on in an easier tone. "You were checking me out, that was most of it. You couldn't stop looking at me. And like I said, you didn't look like the shy type, the kind who doesn't know what he really wants until you take him by the hand and show him..."
Aral dared to look over to find Jack staring down at his feet, his smile gone entirely. Aral bumped Jack's shoulder with his own, and Jack looked up and shrugged. He spoke with a lightness that was an obvious lie. "The shy ones will break your heart."
That sounded like altogether more entanglement than Aral was interested in; it also sounded like grief. While Aral was still trying to work out what he could possibly say to console a man he was about to have technically-not-anonymous sex with, Jack visibly shook off his mood.
"So, my turn," Jack said briskly. "You're Barrayaran, which has to mean you're paranoid from birth--why are you following me back to my hotel room?"
Genuine consideration, brazen bluffing... Aral rubbed his fingertips against his lips, trying to sort through the possible agendas despite the distraction of Jack's nearness and the awareness of what they were about to do. Finally Aral shrugged and told the truth, bewildering as it was. Confusion to the enemy. "You taste good."
Jack laughed again, and this time Aral felt he actually deserved it.
"Here," Jack said, turning a corner, "here, this is me, come on."
He touched his hand to the palm lock and stepped in first, allowing Aral to enter at his own pace, without turning his back. It was a perfectly ordinary cheap spaceport hotel room, which meant that it still seemed exotic at Aral's first glance. He ruthlessly quashed the split-second impulse to gawk and focused on Jack, who stood by the bed, watching him.
Aral moved decisively inside. He waited just long enough for the door to close automatically behind him with a faint hiss before he grabbed Jack by the shirtfront to pull him into a brief, orienting kiss. Jack made an approving noise--and smelled just as good as he had outside--so that was all right, at least. When Aral stepped back, Jack said blithely, "Ready to get naked?"
If Jack was going to act as if it were as simple as that--well, then, why shouldn't it be? Aral nodded without speaking, and Jack smiled brightly and shrugged out of his coat.
Aral's nerve failed him. He turned away--looking for a place to set his clothes neatly, if anyone should ask--as he began to undress himself. Jack didn't ask, of course; from the sounds of fabric hitting the floor Jack was too busy to ask questions.
Aral unbuttoned his shirt with steady, unhurried motions, slipped it off and hung it neatly on a chair. Three strides from the end of the bed. He could find that by touch, in the dark. He slipped off his undershirt and laid it on top, and as he reached for the fastening of his pants, he heard a footfall--deliberately loud, for a bare foot on a carpeted floor. An instant later came the contact it had warned him of, the press of Jack's bare chest against his back. Jack's cock pressed against his ass. Aral pressed back slightly, already anticipating the way this would go, what Jack would want from him.
Jack kissed him behind each ear and gripped Aral's shoulders. "Let me do that, I'm faster."
Aral turned his head as Jack released him and knelt at his feet, quickly unlacing his boots as Aral stared down at him. He could hardly imagine that Jack was the rentboy in this scenario, but then he could hardly imagine that he was, either. That would be an explanation, a reasonable and slightly embarrassing explanation: perhaps all Jack's enthusiasm for him was a preliminary to extortion or theft.
Jack glanced up at Aral as he thought it, and raised an eyebrow. "This would go faster if you'd pick your feet up instead of just standing there at attention, Commodore."
Aral obediently lifted his feet, allowing Jack to remove his boots--it was actually much more like being looked after by a very--very--solicitous batman, really.
The thought had scarcely formed before Jack's fingers were on the fastening of Aral's trousers, the heel of his hand rubbing teasingly at his cock through the fabric. Aral had, actually, briefly had a batman who offered him this sort of service--Ges had arranged it, somehow, all one of his elaborate games--but that man had been quiet, subservient, making Aral so horribly conscious of his rank that he could not imagine allowing it until he was so far into a wine bottle that he couldn't refuse.
Jack, on the other hand, looked exactly as delighted as he had out in the alley, dragging Aral unexpectedly into a dance--as if this, too, were a game they could play together, eye to eye, even if Jack were on his knees. Aral couldn't think what to say--he could, actually, it was on the tip of his tongue to mention that he was still wearing his socks, but he bit his tongue on those idiotic words and laid his palm against Jack's cheek instead, doing his best to smile back. He knew he had been in the habit of smiling at people he was about to have sex with, once.
Jack winked and said, "That'll do."
Before Aral could ask what would do, Jack had jerked Aral's pants open and down to mid-thigh, underwear with them. His hand closed around Aral's cock, holding it in a warm, firm grip as he leaned in and licked, then sucked--then looked up, with Aral's cock in his mouth, still smiling. Aral was biting down hard on his lip, struggling to keep his eyes open and the rest of him upright. Jack's mouth was--Jack looked down again, moving hand and lips and tongue in some unspeakable combination that made Aral gasp, feeling like a boy again, hiding with Ges in the attics, knowing no better than to try whatever felt good in as many combinations as possible.
Jack seemed never to have had to outgrow that age. Aral rested his hand at the back of Jack's head, not forcing him--not for worlds, not when he offered so much better, so easily--but for a point of balance, such as it was. Aral could feel sweat rolling down his spine, and his harsh breathing was loud in the stillness of the ordinary little hotel room, and this was so simple, so impossibly simple.
"Jack," he gasped, because if he was going to come like a teenager he'd at least be considerate about it.
But Jack pulled off at once, squeezing his hand on Aral's cock almost to the point of pain.
"Oh no," Jack said. "I've got plans for you, Aral."
Aral huffed a breathless laugh as Jack let go of his cock and stood up. Of course Jack had plans; of course it wasn't nearly as simple as it seemed. Aral kicked his pants the rest of the way off as Jack turned away, aiming them in the vicinity of his shirt. Jack had placed his boots neatly beneath the chair, Aral noted, where Aral would be able to find them readily. When Aral turned to see where Jack had gone, he discovered him on the bed--kneeling on the bed, in fact, with his legs well apart, leaning over to rummage in the night table so that his--astonishingly excellent--buttocks were spread, putting him thoroughly, vulnerably on display.
Aral made no conscious decision; he was simply standing beside the bed, looking down at Jack, who looked up over his shoulder and then brandished a little plastic tube, familiar, Aral was sure, anywhere in the galaxy at moments like this.
"You'll want this," Jack said. "Well, I'll want this, but I'm sure you'll find it makes it easier to fuck me."
Aral stared at him blankly, and Jack knelt up and rolled over to sprawl on his back--legs spread, cock pressed up against his belly, little tube still held up between thumb and forefinger.
He wasn't entirely naked, Aral realized belatedly. There was a wide leather band on his left wrist. Logically it must be a wrist com of some model he didn't recognize, but it looked more like one of Ges's toys, and Aral just stood, staring, frozen.
"Is there some part of this equation that's not working for you?" Jack inquired. "You don't fuck? You don't use lube? Your mother told you Betans have horrible diseases?"
It was, like everything about Jack, so astonishingly easy. It ought to be a challenge, a contest of wills; no man asked to be fucked this way, so shamelessly, so much as if there were no possibility of shame in it. It was something to be acquiesced to, at best. But no man went on his knees so easily either, and no man danced in alleyways with a strange man.
Aral felt as if he'd suddenly found himself on his back with no awareness that he'd been in a judo match before then; if a man could be like Jack... but Jack was a galactic, that was all. The thought left a bitter taste in the mouth of the son of Barrayar, and he leaned forward to pluck the little tube from Jack's fingers and press a kiss to his lips.
"On the contrary," he murmured. "My mother assured me that Betans enjoy excellent health."
"Attaboy," Jack replied, grinning again. "We can go any which way you want, I'm even more flexible than I look."
Which Aral supposed was an offer to do this--what, up against a wall after all? Or at least with Jack face down, or on his knees, or anything that might fit into Jack's ideas about furtive Barrayarans in alleyways. But Aral had, in point of fact, done this on a bed, in proper privacy, plenty of times--face to face and with proper synthetic lubricants, even. He remembered the first time Ges had produced just such a little tube with a magician's flourish, and said It's not the Time of Isolation, after all. They had both felt terribly grownup, and radically daring.
Aral didn't particularly want to think about Ges just now.
He grabbed the pillow Jack was reclining against, instead, jerked it away from him and shoved it under his hips. Jack laughed a little but cooperated, and Aral knelt between Jack's spread legs, giving the little tube a quick glance--it had only the usual properties, thankfully, no exotic effects or warnings--before using it to douse his first two fingers. Jack positioned himself helpfully, and Aral set his left hand flat against the back of Jack's thigh, helping hold it, as he spread lube in a teasing, exploratory circle around Jack's hole.
He didn't want to rush--didn't want to seem to be hesitating--and most of all he did not want to find himself with no choice but to look Jack in the eye. Aral took the obvious available distraction, and bent over to lick Jack's cock at the same moment he pressed his first finger into Jack. Jack made an encouraging noise, so Aral advanced on both fronts, working his finger in deeper and dragging his mouth to the head of Jack's cock--Jack was already moving a little, rocking back and forth between Aral's mouth and Aral's finger, so Aral kept going. He leaned his shoulder into Jack's thigh and used his left hand to guide Jack's cock into his mouth, working his finger in and out and around in Jack's ass as he sucked.
Jack was mumbling the kind of extravagant nonsense some people said at moments like this; Aral tuned out the words and listened only for tone of voice as he concentrated on doing this right, doing it well. He realized, as he worked a second finger into Jack's ass, that he felt vaguely that he had to defend the honor--the prowess--of Barrayar, in this of all things. He nearly laughed with Jack's cock in his mouth, which would have been awkward. As it was he felt himself smile so much as he could, and sucked harder, twisting his fingers in deep. Jack's cock jumped in Aral's mouth and the ring of muscle went tighter around his fingers for an instant, and Jack's flow of talk cut off into a sharp gasp. Aral thought that he'd just scored a point there.
Jack's hand landed on his head, fingers scrabbling for purchase and finding none in Aral's short hair. Aral pulled off Jack's cock with a long hard gliding suck and said, "Yes?"
"Yes," Jack said. "Now."
Aral crooked his fingers and Jack came very close to kicking him in the head. Aral caught Jack's foot in his left hand and did it again, and again, bowing his head again to lick Jack's cock and balls until Jack stopped complaining about barbarians and said please, and then said it again in exquisitely polite classical Russian for good measure, although his accent was terrible.
"Oh," Aral said, "All right, then."
A moment later he was sinking his cock into Jack, and the tables had turned again, somehow. Aral bit his lip--he was no good at idiot sex babble, too conscious even in the midst of pleasure of his word's worth--but Jack felt inexpressibly good around him. And then too, it was harder than ever now to avoid looking Jack in the eye.
He did look Jack in the eye. He would not be such a coward as to keep his eyes closed or otherwise pretend they were not face to face. When he did--when Aral was all the way into Jack and trying desperately to be still for a moment, to savor the tight clutch of another body, the press of skin to skin and more, unhurried and uncomplicated--he found Jack looking back at him with an entirely unfathomable expression.
It was Jack who looked away first, Jack who said, "Lights," and snapped his fingers, plunging them into a welcome utter darkness. Aral exhaled and began to move, blindly, guided by nothing but touch, body on body. This was familiar from uncounted times before, but never to be taken for granted, and never quite like this. Jack's hands came up and touched him everywhere, shoulders and neck and hair, gripping and slipping and gripping again. They kissed once or twice, or at least their mouths collided, wet and open, but mostly it was just a grapple in the dark. Aral gave up on trying to be better than anything and fucked Jack on purest instinct.
He was startled when he felt Jack come and hesitated a moment, more from surprise than politeness. Jack spoke for the first time since turning out the lights, saying breathlessly, "What do you want, an engraved invitation?" He squeezed around Aral as he said it, hips heaving up around him, heel banging against Aral's back.
Aral snorted and got back to it, moving fast, heedless of anyone's pleasure but his own, not quite able to stop hearing the low steady accompaniment of Jack's words, all yes and good and that's it, just like that. No demands.
"Jack," Aral whispered, though he tried never to say anything. "Jack." He stopped himself after that, choked back words--it was only pleasure, only the electricity of the body, that wave pounding through him, and he let it take him. Orgasm wracked his body like a blow.
He collapsed for a moment, afterward, lying awkwardly on top of Jack, who was bent nearly in half. Eventually he recovered enough coordination and thoughtfulness to pull out and move a bit, but before he'd gathered himself to roll off the end of the bed and make for his clothes--in the dark, as he'd planned--Jack caught him by the shoulder.
"Stay," Jack said. "You could get some sleep--it's a pretty nice bed. I mean, unless that bar was just one more stop on your tour of all the most delightful sights in Solstice in the middle of the night. I have to admit I found the scenery pleasing."
Aral didn't resist, collapsing onto the bed where Jack's tug guided him. One of his legs sprawled over one of Jack's, and Jack didn't let go of his arm.
"Of course you were pleased," Aral murmured. "There was a mirror."
Jack laughed at that, and Aral smiled in the dark and tucked his free arm behind his head.
"Have you been to the zoo, though?" Jack asked.
Aral nodded as his eyes closed, remembering. It was a beautiful zoo, really amazing, with animals from across the Nexus and no visible barriers. Nothing like the zoo at home. Vorbarr Sultana ought to have a proper modern zoo; maybe Ezar could be persuaded to improve it when the little prince was born, a birth-gift or a celebration. The zoo here in Solstice had seemed to be mainly for children.
"And the botanical garden," he said. "Right on the edge of the dome, you know the one? With the access to the little patch of moss on a rock outside."
The botanical garden had also been full of children. Even in the little area outside the dome there had been half a dozen of them in coats and breath masks, mothers watching over them anxiously as they took in the wonder of a green thing growing under the naked sky.
"Lichen, too," Jack said. "And I hear they've got peat going over in Serifosa. These people are really excited about bogs."
Aral felt himself automatically tucking that away as a strategic observation, though it was a thousand times redundant as such. He had had no need whatsoever to come and observe Komarr in person--just the sense that he should see it now, if ever. Before everything changed. Even a bloodless conquest (surely bloodless, with all of Komarr's women and children as hostages to good behavior) even that would....
He shut down that train of thought, conscious of the man beside him. Not a mind-reader, surely, but dangerously perceptive. And Aral had no interest in thinking of any of the things he had come all this way to escape, not now.
Jack squeezed his arm and murmured drowsily, "It's a nice bed, isn't it?"
Aral shifted a little, finding all positions equally extravagantly comfortable, the bed and Jack's casual touch both. "It's a nice bed."
One of the many useful things Ges had taught him was how to wake up without letting on to the man suddenly pressed up against his back. A specialized skill, but it gave Aral a few seconds of sharp, motionless awareness before he reacted, enough time to recognize that the man in question wasn't Ges. This was Jack's hotel room, in Solstice, on Komarr, and Aral really had slept beside him.
Jack kissed the back of his neck and murmured, "You have to be awake--you're Barrayaran and I'm touching you."
Aral smiled in the dark--not entirely dark, now, a faint light creeping in through the heavily polarized window. But it was still dark enough, and Jack was behind him.
Jack moved closer, settling his chin on Aral's shoulder, speaking into his ear in a low, private whisper, as if they weren't strangers who stumbled against each other in the dark but lovers. "Ask me for something, Aral. Anything you want. Make a wish."
What Aral wished, he thought, staring at the not-entirely-dark window, thinking of Komarr beyond it, thinking of Barrayar beyond that, thinking of everything to come... what Aral wished was to be more like Jack, impossible as it was. Joyful, unabashed, free.
Aral closed his eyes and said softly, experimentally--clearly and without real hesitation, as Jack might say it, "Fuck me."
Jack pressed a kiss to Aral's shoulder and slid a hand down Aral's side, but there was something like a laugh submerged in his voice when he said, "Yeah, I can do that. Let's fuck."
Aral had missed something, he knew he had--Jack hadn't been asking what Aral thought--but in the next instant Jack was pushing him onto his stomach, his mouth following Aral's spine down, and Aral stopped wondering. Neither of them spoke again. Jack didn't make him beg, didn't tease. (Didn't hurt him.) Jack fucked him without any particular flourishes--as if there was no need for anything beyond that, their bodies together in the dark, in the bed where they'd slept side by side, where they'd done this before. Jack fucked him as if this were just another time they were fucking, as if they might do it again, as if they might come back here the following night and carry on this way. Aral pressed his face into the pillow and accepted what Jack gave him, in silence, with warm steady hands and his solid, irresistible body. Pleasure, and more than that. Almost, almost, what he'd actually wished for, or at least the shadow of it.
Afterward, Aral let Jack roll him over and sprawl half on top of him; he'd have let Jack do anything just then. The light had grown a little brighter, but Jack was lying so that Aral couldn't see his face when Jack said with no expression in his voice, "Run away with me. You've already come halfway, and I'm getting really good at running away from things."
Ask me for something. Make a wish.
It was all there in Jack's voice, in Jack's words, in what he offered. Aral kept very still, and made his voice calm--though Jack could probably feel his heart beating. It sounded as loud as the sea in Aral's ears.
"Captain Jack Harkness," he said, because it never hurt to be polite, he knew that much, "what are you?"
Jack didn't laugh. For once, Jack didn't laugh at all. He pushed up on one elbow and looked at Aral directly. Aral looked back, searching those pale eyes, monochrome in the faint light though he was fairly certain they'd been blue the night before.
"Barrayaran," Jack said, frowning slightly, his voice matter of fact and thoughtful. "What, a generation out of the Time of Isolation? Aral Vorkosigan, I'm a witch. Wait, that's gendered, isn't it? I'm a wicked mutie sorcerer, then."
Aral blinked. It wasn't the sort of thing he'd ever heard anyone say before, and yet Jack said it in plain seriousness. Aral was good at hearing lies and better at hearing mockery, but for the first time since Aral had met him, Jack gave off nothing but honesty. Now he was telling the truth and the truth he was telling was absolutely preposterous and somehow entirely believable for all that.
"I can't be killed," Jack added, "because I hid my heart in a little blue box and sent it spinning off through the universe. Even I don't know where it's hidden anymore, or if I'll ever see it again. And I'm alone a long, long way from home. That's what I am."
Aral raised one hand and pressed it flat to Jack's chest, sliding his index finger to the suprasternal notch and hooking it in and down until he found the aortic pulse. It thumped away like any man's.
Jack still didn't smile, nor did he react to pressure against his windpipe. His heart wasn't beating anywhere near as fast as Aral's was.
"You're an educated man," Jack said. "You've seen your world and beyond it, and you're thinking it could be a metaphor. But you're a Barrayaran. You carry a knife very well concealed in your right boot even when you're slumming alone and incognito on Komarr. So if you don't believe me, go and get it and we'll see where the truth lies."
Aral had a brief, visceral memory of a day when he was eleven years old, standing in the rain with the knife in his hand. He remembered the feeling of the emperor's flesh giving way to the blade, the blood and the pained sound the man had made, and how it didn't make anything better at all. Without thought, he slid his hand up from Jack's chest, slinging his arm around Jack's neck.
"No," Aral said. "No, I believe you."
Jack let himself be tugged down, and Aral sealed the words with a kiss, light and brief, nearly chaste.
Aral searched Jack's eyes when he raised his head again. "Why me, though? Am I going to--"
Jack shook his head. "You know I can't tell you that. You can't ask me what will be, that's against the rules."
Aral nodded. It was a foolish question. He thought of the stories he knew, all the ones he'd been told as a little boy. The cook at Vorkosigan Surleau had been an old Dendarii hillwoman, never too busy to tell stories to a younger son who was willing to sit quietly in her kitchen. Witches and wicked muties both had abounded in those tales. For each there had been some hero who encountered the magical personage, and some heroes were fools and some were wise, and the distinction between them nearly always came down to knowing what to ask and what to do with the answer.
Carefully, Aral asked, "Will you give me any advice to guide me on my way?"
Jack sighed gustily and sat up, staring toward the window with a scowl of concentration. Aral sat up more slowly but drew his knees up, looping his arms around them. Even lost in concentration, Jack sprawled.
"What you need to do," Jack said finally, just as if he were laying out a tactical exercise, "is to hide your heart. It's only a metaphor for you, but you need to do it. Get a copper box to keep it in and send it off into the future ahead of you and hide it there. It'll be different when you find it again, but nothing can destroy you if you know your heart is safe in the future, waiting for you. You will find it again--you'll know it the moment you see it. Hide your heart, Aral. That's my advice."
Aral nodded slowly. As advice from unworldly beings went, it was surprisingly sensible and not even especially difficult to achieve. Of course, there was one other question every story told him he must ask.
"Is there any service I can do for you?"
Jack did smile at that, seeming genuinely startled. His gaze came back to rest on Aral, looking him over from head to toe.
"I guess if I really want company, now's the time to tell you to run away with me," Jack said.
Aral didn't breathe.
Jack shook his head. "No, that's not your road. Probably not mine, either. I wouldn't wish my luck on you. There is something you can do for me, though. If you ever see a little blue box somewhere a blue box shouldn't be--don't ignore it. Look for the man with it, a man who can't die because he has two hearts in his chest. I could wish one was mine, but... anyway, if you should see him--do what he asks you to do, and help him any way you can, and whatever you do, don't step inside the box."
Aral committed the instructions to memory and then nodded. "As you ask of me and as you advise me I will do without fail, by my word as Vorkosigan."
Jack accepted his vow with a nod, then smiled again. "I really do love your accent. And now you should probably get out of here before that security of yours starts kicking in doors looking for you, huh?"
Aral nodded. He unfolded himself and shifted toward the edge of the bed, but then hesitated. He wanted to touch Jack once more, to be sure he was real, that any of this was real. In the half-dawn light Jack was an otherworldly, impossible creature, comfortably naked on a hotel bed.
"Okay, yes, I also demand one kiss good-bye," Jack announced. He knelt up on the bed and Aral rose to meet him, and Jack's demanded one kiss stretched out for a long time, until Aral's pleasantly sore and sated body began to wonder about exactly how long a kiss could be prolonged. But finally Jack's mouth broke from his, and he said, "Go on, now, before I decide to kidnap you and fuck everything up."
Aral nodded and turned away, sliding off the bed and finding his clothes by touch, dressing with his eyes closed to keep from looking at Jack. He didn't say good-bye--didn't look back--just walked to the door and went. It was the only way. One more chance to be lured into staying--into abandoning his duty, his world, his... everything--would be one too many.
He walked for a while, aimlessly, as the light brightened--mirror coming up, he thought--and thought of nothing until he found himself in a commercial district. There were stores for everything one could possibly want and a number of things he couldn't fathom wanting. Most of them were open even at this improbable hour, keeping the spaceport schedule, driven by ships in and out rather than by the light in the sky. Soon enough Aral found a shop he could step into and say, "I need a secure box, made of copper, about so big."
He held out his clenched fist, for scale. A heart was about that size.
"Oh," the woman at the counter said. "Yes, I have just the thing. From Beta, so you know it's the best--really solid, even as light as it feels. You could launch it through space on its own and your valuables would still be all right."
The little boxes came in a variety of colors and finishes: matte, shiny, metallic. Sure enough there was a copper one, a perfect little cube, featureless. She showed him how to open it and how to set it to his own living thumbprint, and he paid an extravagant sum for it and walked out of the shop feeling only a little foolish. It wasn't exactly that he didn't believe he'd been told to do this--had sworn he would do this. It wasn't even that he doubted what Jack was; that certainty had taken root in him. It was only that he felt he couldn't explain that certainty to anyone else. He ought to be doubting it now, and he didn't.
Aral found one of Solstice's quiet little parks, deserted at this early hour, and sat down on a bench to stare at the box as though it could tell him something. But the copper box was only part of the thing, the easiest part of the thing. The box wasn't even a metaphor, it was just a box.
Hide your heart, Jack had said. You can't be destroyed if you hide your heart. And that had to mean he, his heart, was in danger of destruction.
Probably his life wasn't in danger. He wasn’t a mutie sorcerer himself, and nothing he could put into this box would protect him. And Jack knew his name and title and rank, and that had to mean he survived long enough to make his name worth knowing. Jack hadn't told him anything, made him no prophecies or promises, but Aral had been confident a week ago and he was still confident. Nothing was sure yet, but the Vorkosigan Plan had gained significant traction with the Emperor and Captain Negri....
And with Prince Serg, and Ges, and their whole crowd. Aral shifted on the park bench, flexing muscles and letting the memory of sex with Jack arc through him. He looked down at the box. If it was only his heart he risked, then the risk had to come from that quarter. All the risks to his heart had always come from that quarter, even before he'd consented to marry Ges's sister, and ever since he buried her.
He could still see the beautiful boy in Ges every time he smiled. They'd learned everything together, shared things they could never have shared with anyone else. A man--a creature--like Jack could never understand that, the way hearts grew entwined under the weight of secrecy. But everything between him and Ges got more complicated with every year that went by (grew more twisted, down in the dark, under the weight of fear and shame and anger with no outlet but each other). This year things had accelerated--now that Princess Kareen (now that poor Kareen at last) was carrying an heir, Serg was more readily distracted from domestic pursuits. Ges had made it his business to distract the prince, and Aral could see already how they encouraged each other, and he knew it wasn't going to change. It was a personal and political alliance in the oldest Vor tradition. It made Aral's skin crawl.
So he focused on his clean and perfect strategy--a bloodless conquest, if they'd let him alone to manage it. And he made excuses to be away from the capital.
He was six jumps away, now, sitting under a dome on Komarr with a copper box in his hands and Ges's most recent handwritten letter in his pocket. He'd memorized it by now, reading it again and again as he fled. He couldn't bear to think of answering it and knew he would, by word or deed. He always answered Ges.
But he'd been told to hide his heart, even if it was only a metaphor--to hide his heart in the future. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the letter. It wouldn't fit in the box as it was, and Aral took a strange childish delight in crumpling it in his fist until it did.
He glanced around cautiously--the park was still empty, and he didn't see any obvious video feeds and would just have to risk any subtle ones. He retrieved the knife from his boot and pricked his thumb with the point, letting blood well up as he put the knife away again. He smeared his heart's blood across the crumpled paper, leaving ragged blood trails across the monochrome sphere. He kept pressing down until it looked like a red planet, or like a magician's simulacrum of a heart. His thumb was sore and he felt a little light-headed, but he had done his best to make the metaphor as Jack had told him to.
He opened the box, and consigned his blood and paper heart to safety in hiding. He locked it again, sealing it to the touch of his uncut thumb, and then set out with the copper box in his left hand and his sore-thumbed right hand in his pocket. He had an open-return ticket back to Barrayar, and he really did need to report in before Security got excited and started the invasion without him. And wouldn't that be ironic. He'd make a terrible Helen. (He thought briefly of Ges dragging Jack behind his chariot--but it was Jack who couldn't be killed, so the whole idea broke down there.)
Unencumbered by luggage, he gathered the same stares he had on the way down--or maybe it was only that he was Barrayaran. They were a bit like zoo specimens here, regarded more as peculiar and endangered than fearsome by their Komarran gatekeepers. For now, he thought. For now. Think what you like of us for now.
There was a tourist attraction on the uppermost level of the station, a spacefarer's equivalent to the fountains where one tossed a coin for luck. Any small object--less than fifteen centimeters on a side and less than a kilo in weight--could be sent out of the station on a trajectory clear of travel lanes, up out of the ecliptic. Aral watched a series of children offer up the shiny little spheres that were sold for this very purpose, and when the kiosk was at a low ebb, he went forward with the little copper box--just small enough--and played wide-eyed and ignorant tourist until the operator agreed to let him operate the exterior robot arms himself, so that he could send the little box off into space by his own hands.
He placed it into the tiny airlock himself, and with a carefully calculated bit of fumbling, he sent it arcing off on the opposite of the standard trajectory--spinning, not off into the universe, but down toward Komarr. Even that thin atmosphere would burn it to atoms, but that was where his future lay, and it was to his future that Jack had told him to send the box and his heart.
The kiosk operator groused at him, but Aral paid no attention, watching the copper box tumbling away into darkness until it was indistinguishable from the myriad other flashing irregular points of light. He shoved both hands into his pockets, where Ges's letter wasn't, and remembered suddenly that in none of the cook's stories, whether their heroes were wise or foolish, had the hero ever understood the witch's warning when she gave it.
He'd done what he could, and it was all he could do. He turned and walked away without looking back.
A few days later, when he was back where he was supposed to be, he had a little chat with Captain Negri. Negri was pointedly polite to him and called him Commodore a lot, in that way he had of reminding one that his own rank, though technically inferior, wielded more power than any other serving officer in the Imperium could dream of.
"Your trail went suddenly cold after you went into the bar in Solstice," Negri said. "Did you accomplish anything in your little reconnaissance after that point?"
I met a man who knows what I will become and who took me to bed on the strength of it, Aral thought. I received a warning. I made a vow and kept what part of it I could keep. In his mind's eye the little copper box kept tumbling away into darkness.
Having already considered what Negri might possibly be able to verify about his movements, Aral said only, "I went shopping."